Thursday, November 23, 2000

Meow. Meow.

That caterwauling you hear comes from the ranks of the press, pundits and comedians who are taking a vicious claw to Katherine Harris, Florida’s beleaguered secretary of state.

They hiss because she’s rich and attractive. They scratch because she’s a conservative belle with a brain.

“Boy, it’s getting cold,” Jay Leno observed on “The Tonight Show.” “It’s even cold in Florida. In fact, it’s so cold in Florida, you know that Secretary of State Katherine Harris? She wore a third layer of makeup today.”


Of course, there’s the matter of what some call abuse of discretion because Mrs. Harris declined to accept recounts of the presidential election from selected counties in South Florida.

For that, she blithely has been called a “Soviet commissar.”

Left-leaning Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz was much less imaginative: He simply called Mrs. Harris “a crook.”

Much of the nastiness has come from other women a feminista double standard gleefully pursued. Many have taken her to task not for how she does her job, but for her appearance.

Cruella DeVil? Tammy Faye Bakker?

Not since Linda R. Tripp has a woman in the public spotlight taken it so hard.

Like the much-maligned figure from Monicagate, Mrs. Harris was mocked in a skit on last weekend’s “Saturday Night Live.”

One thing is clear: It’s not easy being a high-maintenance Republican in a liberal’s wash-and-wear world.

Instead of teeing off on her capacity as a member of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Cabinet caught up in the long-running drama of a litigious ballot count, Mrs. Harris’ attackers grew increasingly personal.

The media backlash against Mrs. Harris represents “one step back for feminists,” says Republican political consultant Cheri Jacobus, who rose to defend the Sisterhood.

“I think the self-proclaimed pro-woman feminists need to take a look at their true convictions. Would they be giving the same treatment to liberal Democratic women? The answer is no,” says Miss Jacobus, president of Capitol Strategies.

“It’s one thing if they take issue with how she does her job; it’s another to make fun of her appearance or dress. Isn’t that what they’ve been fighting against?”

Anita K. Blair, a lawyer who is president of the Independent Women’s Forum, says Mrs. Harris’ critics are massaging an old stereotype that women supposedly had outgrown thanks to the women’s movement.

“Exemplary” is how she describes Mrs. Harris’ conduct during a stressful time.

“Anybody who can get their heads out of the race, class and gender sand and look objectively at the job she’s been doing should have no complaints and no criticisms,” Mrs. Blair says. “It’s the kind of hack job that used to be done to competent women who also cared about their appearance. The rap was, ‘Oh, she only cares about her appearance, and therefore, she can’t do her job.’

“That’s just not so.”

Still, it didn’t stop some fashionista scribes from making nasty mention of Mrs. Harris’ skills with blush and foundation.

One in particular, fashion reporter Robin Givhan of The Washington Post, used words such as “trowel” to describe the secretary’s failed attempt at makeup artistry. The eyelashes are most certainly fake, she wrote in a particularly vicious article in the Style section.

The Post, however, was not alone in its pummeling, which its own ombudsman criticized as wrong.

“Katherine Harriss makeup artist should be impeached. Or double-punched. Or made to perform some sort of community service, say, cleaning up the states hurricane of errant chads for a couple of weeks,” said a brief but nasty report in the feature pages of the Boston Globe.

“Lighten up on the funeral parlor makeup,”’s Laura Ingraham advised Mrs. Harris last week on MSNBC’s “Imus” talk show. “It’s like Madame Tussaud’s.”

True, Mrs. Harris, was heavy-handed in crafting a TV-ready visage. That minor but public gaffe has made her an easy target for ridicule in a place where tightly wound political parties are looking to cast blame.

The presidency is on the line and a princess of sorts has some power.

Contrary to the public image created in these recent, high-pressure days which some say sapped her credibility Mrs. Harris has crafted a busy life of public service. She also has earned respect for her work.

A onetime state senator from Sarasota who grew up in the small town of Bartow, Katherine Harris, 43, is a fourth-generation Floridian. She is the mother of a teen-age daughter. She is married to businessman Sven Anders Axel Ebbeson; together, they are worth about $6.5 million.

She is a bona fide heiress; her family commands attention. In Gainesville, where football rules, her grandfather’s name is spoken with reverence. Ben Hill Griffin, a self-made man, is the biggest Gator of them all. He gave millions to the University of Florida, where a mammoth orange-and-blue football stadium dubbed “The Swamp” is officially named in his honor.

Mrs. Harris could have taken the socialite path, spending her quality hours at Neiman-Marcus, lunching with girlfriends and scrutinizing china patterns, all the while raising money for one cause or another.

To her credit and this should make the khaki-wearers happy she chose a different, businesswoman’s route. After earning a history degree at Agnes Scott College near Atlanta and studying in Switzerland and Spain, she headed off to Harvard, bastion of all things East Coast, where she picked up a graduate degree with a focus on international trade.

A former IBM executive and real estate agent, she gets hammered by opponents for her unapologetic ambition. Though the drubbing has been severe, Mrs. Harris has declined to comment on the personal attacks.

An editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution needled her not for her style, but for her professional get-up-and-go.

“She is no mere flunky carrying water for the higher-ups,” the editorial read. “Girlfriend has a game plan with her own ambitions at the center.”

Of course, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, didn’t get where they are by sitting back and waiting for country to call.

Mrs. Harris’ partisan motives have been questioned with the suggestion that she is jockeying for an ambassadorship. She has denied that.

So what if she wants one? Bigger fluffs have served.

In the uproar of the Florida recount, the fact that she fostered serious business relationships for the state around the world has taken a back seat to her choice of wardrobe. She’s also under fire for staying at luxury hotels on trips.

As if.

Where is it written that comfortable shoes, natural fibers and flat hair are the pathway to legitimacy? Do people really expect her to conduct state business at the Red Roof Inn?

So she knows her way around the hair spray? So she’s heavy-handed at the lash line and likes a smoky lid?

She may perhaps be a tad too fond of wearing an evening look in the a.m., but she doesn’t deserve to be smacked around particularly by those who couldn’t tell a Blahnik pump from a Clark’s clog.

No one seems to be saying much about the boys involved in this Southern election drama or the other ladies attached to it.

It is worth noting that Mr. Bush could be the next leader of the free world, but he’s appearing in public in a baseball cap emblazoned with the name ZZ Top, the rock group that hails from Texas. That certainly looks presidential.

Of the other players, Warren Christopher wears handsome suits but otherwise looks like a deflated mix of Shar-Pei and beagle. No one’s telling him to get a face lift or eat a couple of cheeseburgers.

Tipper Gore, in case the same reporters and pundits didn’t notice, is a solid size 14 these days. Yet no one’s smacking her around for taking a jog in clingy Lycra, creating a photo op for her boy Al.

Perhaps, after the dust settles, the literati will forgive Mrs. Harris, who already has toned it down. She also has received hundreds of bouquets and thousands of e-mails of support.

When she appeared Tuesday before the Florida state legislature, both sides of the aisle rose in a standing ovation. This despite the fact that Mrs. Harris symbolically nose-thumbed her critics by showing up at the statehouse wearing a little black coat dress. It slit ever so slightly as she sat gracefully, exposing lithe legs that no doubt will keep her critics humming.

Even the Florida Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling Tuesday night in favor of accepting hand recounts in Broward, West Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties was remarkable mostly for its harsh, partisan denunciation of Mrs. Harris.

She has sought to certify the Bush margin in line with her reading of Florida law, citing its Nov. 14 deadline for accepting hand recounts. The Supreme Court justices six Democrats and an “independent” accused her of having attempted to “disenfranchise” those whose votes might be found in the hand recounts.

A lower court ruling would have allowed Mrs. Harris, a leader of Mr. Bush’s campaign in Florida, to declare the Republican as the winner on Saturday. The justices, however, said she must wait and accept the recounts if they are completed by 5 p.m. Sunday.

As the recounts go on and Katherine Harris perhaps anticipates taking a few more lumps, the lesson from Florida should be that you can turn up the glamour a notch and still be a skilled elected official.

Instead, for the most part, the attacks on her seem to prove a point that education, drive and a bolder-than-Beltway look makes you an easy scapegoat particularly when personal wealth is part of the equation.

How catty.

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